Street smarts

Parental concerns face off against "free-range" philosophy as back-to-school season starts

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published September 14, 2009 5:15PM (EDT)

On May 25, 1979, 6-year-old Etan Patz left his New York City home to walk two blocks to his school bus stop. He was never seen again.

On Oct. 9, 1985, 9-year-old Sarah Pryor disappeared while out walking in her small Massachusetts town. It’s the same town I’d inhabited when I was 9, where I walked alone to school every morning and played alone in the back streets and woods every afternoon. Pryor’s skull was found 12 years later.

On Aug. 24, 2009, I let my 9-year old daughter, Lucy, walk one block of our Manhattan neighborhood by herself to get the paper from the corner store. She’s done it several times since. I get about 30 new gray hairs every time. Now, all she wants in the world is to do the 10-minute journey to her school, complete with a crossing of Broadway, solo.

She doesn’t know who Jaycee Dugard is, or that sometimes little boys and girls on their way to school don’t come for a very long time or ever. She doesn’t know that three years ago, a woman was killed by a stray bullet outside the barbershop a few doors from her school. She doesn’t know about the neighborhood pedestrian killed in an early morning hit-and-run last month.

But I’m her mom; it’s my job to worry.

So I devoured the New York Times story yesterday about the debate over when to let kids walk to school by themselves. In it, journalist Jan Hoffman examines the “abduction monsters embedded in modern parenting,” citing those monsters as contributing to the decline of the self-directed kid. "In 1969, 41 percent of children either walked or biked to school"; she notes, "by 2001 only 13 percent still did."

The idea that something could happen to your kid, something that you could have prevented if only you’d been more vigilant, is the worst thing a parent can imagine. That’s why parents spend so much time imagining just that. Throw in the ever-more-sensational news media and a spate of relentlessly grim prime-time crime shows, it’s a wonder anybody ever leaves the house before college.

The truth is that stranger abduction -- like stray bullets and hit-and-runs -- is a horrifying but thankfully rare occurrence. Growing up, however, happens every day. As Lenore Skenazy, author of  "Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry," told the Times, "Organizing your life around the images of Etan Patz and Jaycee Dugard negates the joy you had walking to school as a kid or even the sense that you could take care of yourself."

That’s right, parents -- there’s joy to be had in childhood, and it doesn’t always come in a big box of tightly controlled edutainment.

In navigating the vicissitudes of autonomy, much depends on the kid, and what he or she is ready for. I know a 6-year-old who has free run of a vast swath of our neighborhood, and a 12-year-old who still doesn’t go to the store alone. My firstborn would gladly hop on the subway and go out to lunch downtown solo if she could, but gets creeped out if I go downstairs to the mailbox to let her fend for herself in the apartment for a minute. I’m taking my cues from my daughters, tempered with my own common sense.

I talk to my girls about what they’d do if we got separated in a crowd, or if anybody -- friend or stranger -- touched them in a way that made them uncomfortable. I drill them on how to cross the street and why they should ignore whistles and catcalls (yes, my 9-year-old gets whistles). And I’m buoyed by the fact that we do live in an era of greater safety awareness, and programs like Safe Routes to School.

At Lucy’s school, only children in fourth grade and up can be dismissed without an adult to pick them up, and then only with a signed parental consent form. I haven’t signed hers yet, but I know the day is coming when I must. It won’t be long before she, and soon after, her little sister, will be walking around the world without me holding their hands. It’s really hard -- and bittersweet as hell -- to imagine.

It’s why I suspect that for all the concern about kidnapped kids, there’s something else going on with all those parents who won’t let their offspring out of their sight: It’s nice being around our children. It’s nice to feel needed. I love those moments every day when we trot off to the schoolyard together, laughing and talking. Who wouldn’t have a tough time relinquishing that?

But when Lucy begs to go out alone, I think of the wisdom of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who once said, "I don't want to protect you from the world. I want to show it to you." My daughters will always be my babies, and I don’t want to rush a moment of their childhoods. I am also trying, very hard, to raise them to be independent, competent, unflinching adults, who can balance keeping their wits about them with not seeing life in terms of victims and predators.  Because scary as it is, I know you can’t show your kid the world until you let her cross the street. 

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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